Leaders Summit on Climate: Development and Diplomacy Leading U.S. Climate Action

April 23, 2021 By Zach Cohen and Jessica Ritchie

At this week’s Leaders Summit on Climate hosted at the White House, President Joe Biden underscored the need for international cooperation on the climate crisis, stating “No nation can solve this crisis on our own…all of us — and particularly those of us who represent the world’s largest economies — we have to step up.”

The magnitude of the climate crisis was recently illustrated by the National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends Report 2040, which observed that over the next two decades, the “the costs and challenges [of climate change] will disproportionately fall on the developing world, intersecting with environmental degradation to intensify risks to food, water, health, and energy security.” Moreover, a new report from insurance company Swiss Re found that, without action, climate change could reduce global economic output by $23 trillion annually by mid-century.

As the impacts of climate change continue to foster instability and exacerbate development challenges, many policymakers and experts have found common ground on the need to support the most vulnerable communities in building resilience. The USGLC’s 2021 Report on Reports — an analysis of more than 100 reports from think tanks across the political spectrum — found bipartisan consensus on the importance of American leadership through development and diplomacy in mitigating the impacts of climate change.

This consensus was similarly reflected throughout the two-day Summit, as leaders from more than 40 countries alongside U.S. cabinet officials, business leaders, representatives from multilateral organizations, and even Pope Francis, discussed the immense challenge climate change poses and the cooperation needed to confront it.

U.S. Leadership Advancing Climate Resilience

Leading with America’s development and diplomacy tools, the White House announced plans to double climate aid to developing countries by 2024, and to specifically triple finance for climate adaptation and resilience. The pledge is a part of the first ever U.S. International Climate Finance Plan, which elevates America’s development and diplomacy tools within a whole-of-government vision for scaling up efforts to support developing countries in responding to the climate crisis.

Specifically, the Development Finance Corporation (DFC) committed to reaching net zero emissions in its investment portfolio by 2040 and ensuring that one third of all new investments support climate mitigation and adaptation projects. Additionally, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) announced that it would invest $250 million to leverage $3.5 billion in private finance in support of climate resilience.

Underscoring the connection between climate crises in the developing world and America’s own national security interests, the administration’s foreign policy and defense leaders highlighted the importance of these investments:

  • Secretary of State Tony Blinken: “Every one of our countries is already experiencing the impact of climate change, and they’ll only get worse. And climate change can drive the spread of disease, food insecurity, mass migration, and conflict. All of these consequences are hitting underserved and marginalized communities in our countries the hardest, and some countries are experiencing much more severe impacts than others, something we must acknowledge and address.”
  • Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield:“…at its current pace, the climate crisis is set to drive millions from their homes, propelling mass migration that will undermine peace and stability around the world. Worst of all, so many of the world’s most fragile states and regions are the very same ones that are most vulnerable to climate calamities.”
  • Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin:“We also have a once in a lifetime opportunity to build an entire economic sector and the global infrastructure for clean energy. The truth is that our shared commitment will allow us to create a safer, more resilient, secure, and sustainable future. Again, none of us can tackle this problem alone. We share this planet and shared threats demand shared solutions.”

Climate Priorities for Developing Countries

Many of the leaders who took part in the Summit represented low and middle-income countries, and emphasized in their remarks that developing countries and regions have contributed minimally to the climate crisis but are now paying the greatest price. President Félix Tshisekedi of the Democratic Republic of the Congo highlighted the adverse impacts of the climate crisis in Africa, noting that “climate change negatively influences social and economic development, and peace and security, thus jeopardizing the wellbeing of populations and future generations.”

Leaders from developing countries also placed an emphasis on their ongoing climate adaptation efforts. Thailand’s Minister of Natural Resources and Environment Varawut Silpa-archa shared that his country is working to build a climate-resilient agricultural sector and “improve the adaptive capabilities of our farmers,” an especially important step given that 25% of the country works in agriculture and face risks to their livelihoods from more frequent droughts and floods.

Additionally, leaders from small island developing nations stressed the urgent and unique climate-driven challenges facing their countries. Prime Minister Gaston Browne of Antigua and Barbuda argued that “the debt of small states has risen to unsustainable levels because of repeated borrowings to rebuild and recover from continuous debilitation from natural disasters arising from climate change,” and called for debt relief and innovative financial instruments to help small island states build resilience to natural disasters and rising sea levels.

Private Sector Commitments

President Biden spoke to the pivotal role of the private sector in combating climate change, stating, “meeting this challenge is going to require mobilizing financing at an unprecedented scale.” He also emphasized the economic opportunity climate change presents, observing that “[The private sector] know[s] that climate change is more than a threat. It also presents one of the largest job creation opportunities in history.”

Citigroup CEO Jane Fraser highlighted the overlap between climate change and economic opportunity as well, noting that “some think that confronting climate change and creating jobs and economic inclusion are in conflict, but we believe we’re only going to be successful in tackling our global challenges if these three agendas are working together.” She announced that Citigroup would commit $500 billion in environmental projects and activities by 2030, a tenfold increase from their first commitment in 2007.

Shirley Ann Jackson, President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute also announced that RPI has partnered with Siemens and other organizations to launch an Institute for Energy, the Built Environment, and Smart Systems (EBESS) to create infrastructure that is net zero in energy use and climate resilient.

Galvanizing Global Action

Through convening the Leaders Summit and demonstrating a renewed commitment to addressing the climate crisis, the U.S. galvanized other countries to take further action, alongside advancing several multilateral priorities. The United States and India announced a new “U.S.-India Climate and Clean Energy Agenda 2030 Partnership,” which outlines “bilateral cooperation on strong actions in the current decade to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement.” And the U.S. and China released a joint statement last week emphasizing a commitment to “cooperating with each other and with other countries” on the crisis – an important step as many policy experts have observed that the two countries will need to work together on the issue.

This week’s Summit demonstrated that the international community has forged a common understanding of the scale of the climate crisis. However, as countries look to the upcoming UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow in November 2021, much remains to be seen if countries will commit to the pledges they have made and if talk can be translated into action.